We’ve all seen the gut-wrenching photo of the 5-year-old Syrian child — — pulled out of the rubble in Aleppo and placed in an ambulance, his young face reflecting an obliviousness to the misery around him and the dismal future ahead.
His photo is sadly not the first of a Syrian child suffering from this interminable sectarian chaos. As with the release of other such images, people around the world instantly took to social media to share the photo of this poor boy and decry the violence in Syria. All of us saw our children in Omran — small, defenseless, innocent.
It’s easy to feel deeply from 6,000 miles away. It’s harder to do something about it. Governments globally should beware: If we don’t do something to address the situation in Syria and save these children from their current fate, then we won’t just undermine the future of these children, but our own as well.
I recently saw the documentary “Our Last Stand” about an Assyrian-Americans’s journey through her ancient homeland in Iraq and Syria. The film showcases conversations with children in refugee camps and demonstrates the deep psychological effects war is having on them. In one moving scene, a boy breaks down into tears as he explains how ISIS took everything from his family and left it with nothing.
And, sadly, he is just one of many children suffering the effects of war and terror.
But what’s to become of these children? The lucky ones will move to Europe or the United States, where they’ll eventually learn the local language and attend top schools and universities. They’ll dream of returning home, as most refugees do, but in the interim, they will become an integral part of our societies, contributing to our economies and cultural understanding.
Unfortunately, this future is for the select few. The vast majority will remain displaced and will miss years of education — if they ever return to school. According to the United Nations, 4 million Syrian children are not in school. If we don’t address this harsh reality, these children could face one (or more) of three likely outcomes: they could become professional beggars; they could be abused and trafficked as child labor or sexual slaves; or they could be recruited by terrorist organizations.
And though Syria may seem a world away, we have an obligation to recognize the plight of these children and to act. Setting humanitarian goals aside, their future has a direct impact on our national security. It’s about time policymakers and legislators around the world think about how their present-day decisions will affect our national security interests for years to come.
If we fail to respond, we can forget about forming any meaningful diplomatic relationships with countries in the region, and we should expect to throw more money at insurmountable humanitarian and economic crises that arise amid continued instability. And, in the worst-case scenario, we may find ourselves fending off these very children who grew up and into direct threats against our homeland.
Take, for example, the children who were raised in Palestinian refugee camps as a byproduct of war and displacement. Now adults, these individuals lack economic opportunities, and some have become involved with designated terrorist organizations, such as Hamas and al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. These organizations have threatened the security of our allies and friends, including Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. Despite our continued humanitarian aid, the violence continues.
In other words, international governments need to understand that if they remain complacent, the effects of conflict on Syrian children will haunt us for years to come. As my good friend and scholar Frederic C. Hof recently wrote, “Ideally, a 5-year-old boy will bring adults to their senses and help leaders, at long last, lead.”
We’ve already missed too many opportunities to put an end to the mess that has become Syria. For those of us outside of government, there are small steps we can take to help: we can contribute to the organization that saved Omran (The White Helmets); we can support the NGOs and churches taking care of kids and educating them while war ravages their lands; and we can get involved in the public discourse on refugees and argue for their fair treatment and human rights.
But we should not stop there. We should pressure our governments, in elections and through protests, that if they won’t act because the crisis is too complicated, they should act because these children are in their national security interests.
Hagar Hajjar Chemali is CEO of Greenwich Media Strategies. She is the former director of communications and spokesperson for the U.S. Mission to the U.N. and was director for Syria and Lebanon at the White House. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.